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Biographies of Aśvagosha, Nâgarjuṇa, Âryadeva, and Vasubandhu

By Vasilief, translated by E. Lyall


Aśvagosha   Nâgarjuṇa   Âryadeva   Vasubandhu









VOL. IV.—1875

[Bombay, Education Society's Press]
{Reduced to HTML by Christopher M. Weimer, November 2002}

p. 141


Translated from Vassilief's work on Buddhism, by Miss E. Lyall.

   1. Aśvagosha* (in Chinese Ma-mine, 'voice of the horse') was a disciple of the venerable Pârśva. Pârśva, on arriving in Central India from the North, learned that the clergy of that district dared not strike the Gaṇṭâ, a privilege, as we know, which had been granted to the religions which prevailed or which had obtained preponderance. The cause of this humiliation was Aśvagosha, who, belonging to the most learned Tîrthikas, had demanded that the Buddhists should not be permitted to strike the Gaṇṭâ so long as they had not refuted him. Pârśva ordered it to be struck; he entered into discussion with Aśvagosha, and first asked him this simple question:—'What is to be desired in order that the universe may enjoy peace, the sovereign long life, the countries abundance, and that people may no longer have to submit to miseries?' A turn so unexpected, to which it was necessary to reply, according to the laws of discussion, confounded Aśvagosha, and after the meeting he became a disciple of Pârśva, who counselled him to teach Buddhism, and then returned to his native town. Aśvagosha remained in Central India, and made himself celebrated by his superior talents.

   It happened that the king of Little Yu-chyi, in Northern India, invaded Magadha, and demanded the cups of Buddha and Aśvagosha to be given up to him. The nobles grumbled against the king because he had set much too high a value on the latter; in order to convince them of their merit, the king took seven horses, and after having starved them for six days, he led them to the place in which Aśvagosha was teaching, and ordered fodder to be given to them, but when the horses heard the preacher they shed tears, and would not eat. Aśvagosha became celebrated because the horses had understood his voice, and because of this he received the name of Aśvagosha (voice of a horse).

   2. Nâgârjuṇa was born in Southern India. He was descended from a Brahmanical family; he was naturally endowed with eminent qualities; and whilst yet a child he taught the four Vedas, each of which contained 40,000 gâthas (each of which is composed of 42 letters or syllables). He travelled into various kingdoms, and learned all the secular sciences, such as astronomy, geography, secret and magical powers; then he entered into friendship with three very distinguished men, and, having obtained power to render himself invisible, he glided with them into royal palaces, where he began to disgrace the women. Their presence was discovered by the print of their feet; the three companions of Nâgârjuṇa were hewn to pieces, and he himself was saved only by first making a vow to adopt the spiritual state (Buddhist). Accordingly, having arrived on the monntains, at the stûpa of Buddha, he uttered his vows, and in ninety days he learned the three Piṭakas, the deepest meaning of which he penetrated. Then he began to search for the other Sûtras, but he found them nowhere; it was only on the summit of the Snowy Mountains that a very old Bhikshu gave him The Sûtra of Mahâyâna, the depth of the meaning of which he comprehended, without being able to discover the detailed explanations of it. All the opinions of the Tirthikas and Śramaṇas seemed to him worthless; in his pride he supposed himself a founder of a new religion, and invented new vows and a new costume for his disciples. Then Nâgarâja (King of the Dragons) concentrated himself in him, took him with him to his palace at the bottom of the sea, and showed him there seven deposits of precious objects, with the Vaipulya books and other Sûtras of a deep and mystical meaning; Nâgârjuṇa read them for ninety consecutive days, and then returned to the earth with a casket. There was at this time in Southern India a king who knew very little of the true doctrine; Nâgârjuṇa, wishing to attract all his attention, appeared before him for seven years with a red flag, and when the king, in course of a prolonged conversation with him, asked him, as a proof of his universal knowledge, to tell him what was going on in heaven, Nâgârjuṇa declared that there was war between the Asuras and the Devas, and to confirm his words there fell from heaven an arm and some mutilated limbs of the Asuras. p. 142 Then the king was convinced, and ten thousand Brâhmaṇs gave up wearing their hair in knots (that is to say, they were shaved), and made the vows of perfection (that is, of the spiritual calling). Then Nâgârjuṇa spread Buddhism widely in Southern India: he humbled the Tîrthikas, and to explain the doctrines of the Mahâyâna he composed the Upadeśa, of 100,000 gâthas; besides that, he composed Chyuane iane fo lao lune, 'The Sublime Path of Buddha,' consisting of 5,000 gâthas; Da tzzi fane biane lune, 'The Art of Pity,' consisting of 50 gâthas (5,000 ?). It was by means of these that the doctrine of the Mahâyâna spread on all sides in Southem India. Besides these he composed U veï lune, 'Meditations on Intrepidity,' in 100,000 gâthas.* A Brâhmaṇ who had entered into discussion with him produced a magic pond in the middle of which was a water-lily with a thousand leaves, but Nâgârjuṇa produced a magic elephant which overturned the pond. At length, upon a chief of the Hinayâna showing a desire that Nâgârjuṇa should die, he shut himself up in his solitary chamber and disappeared. For a hundred years temples were raised in his honour in all the kingdoms of India, and people began to worship him as they did Buddha. As his mother had borne him under an Arjuṇa tree, he received the name of Arjuṇa, and as after that a Nâga (dragon) had taken part in his conversion, the name Nâga was added, whence has resulted the name Nâgârjuṇa (in Chinese Lune-chu, dragon-tree; the Thibetans translate it 'converted by a dragon'). He was the thirteenth patriarch, and administered religion more than three hundred years.

   3. Deva (Âryadeva) was descended from a Brahmanical family of Southern India. He rendered himself celebrated by his general knowledge. There was in his kingdom a golden image of Maheśvara two sagenes high; whoever, in asking a favour, turned himself towards it, had his prayer granted in the present life. All who presented themselves were not admitted to the image, but Deva insisted that he should be allowed to enter, and when the angry spirit began to roll his eyes, he pulled one of them out. Another day Maheśvara appeared to him in a festival and promised him that the people should believe his words. Deva came to the pagoda of Nâgârjuṇa,§ advanced into the spiritual state, and then began to enlighten the people. But that did not satisfy him, he was possessed with the desire to convert the king himself. For that purpose he went to the bodyguards, and after having gained their attention he asked permission to enter into discussion with some heretics, every one of whom he overcame. Deva composed Bo-lune erl-chi ping, 'The Hundredfold Meditation,' and Ci bo lune (400 gâthas) for the overthrow of error; but a Tîrthika laid open his stomach and he died. As he had before this given one of his eyes to Maheśvara when he met him at the festival, he remained blind of an eye, and was surnamed Kânadeva.

   4. Vasubandhu was born in the kingdom of Purushapura, in Northern India. In the history of the god Vishṇu the following is related:—Vishṇu was the younger brother of Indra, who had sent him into Jambudvîpa to conquer the Asura: he was born as son to the king Vâsudeva. At this time the Asura existed under the name of Indradamana (conqueror of Indra), a name which he had received because of his war against Indra. In the Vyâkaraṇa** it is said that the Asura asserts that it is not a good thing for people to amuse themselves by giving opposition to the gods who find enjoyment in well doing. This Asura had a sister named Prabhâvat (sovereign of light), who was very beautiful. The Asura, wishing to injure Vishṇu, placed his sister in a prominent position, and himself told her that if any one wished to marry her she was to propose that he should seek a quarrel with her brother. Vishṇu came to this place; he fell in love with Prabhâvatî, and, as all the gods had married daughters of the Asuras, he proposed marriage to her: he was in consequence forced to fight a duel with the Asura. Vishṇu, as the body of Nârâyaṇa, was invulnerable; the Asura also continued to live though Vishṇu had cut off his head, hands, and other limbs, which returned anew to their places. The fight continued till night, and the strength of Vishṇu was beginning to fail, when his wife, fearing lest he should be beaten, took p. 143 an Utpala leaf, and tearing it in two pieces, threw them on different sides, and began to walk in the middle. Vishṇu, understanding the meaning of this action, tore the body of the Asura into two pieces and passed between them; then the Asura died. He had formerly obtained from a Ṛishi the privilege that if any of his limbs should be cut off they should reunite, but the Ṛishi had not promised that his body would be joined together again if it should be torn asunder. As Vishṇu had shown here the courage of a man, the kingdom was thus named Purusha. There was in this kingdom a royal chief who was a Brâhmaṇ of the Kauśika* family. He had three sons who bore the single name Vasubandhu, which was common to them, and which signifies 'celestial parent' (Tiane-tzine). It is the custom in India to give all children only one name, which is common to them, and besides that, in order to distinguish them, another one is added as a special distinction. The third son Vasubandhu had advanced into the spiritual calling at the Sarvâstivâda school. He became an Arhana and was named Bi-lin-chi Vatsya (ba-po); Bilinchi was his mother's name, and Vatsya signifies 'son;' but it is thus that the children of servants, cattle, and specially calves are called. The eldest son Vasubandhu advanced equally in the spiritual calling at the Sarvâstivâda school, and although he might have escaped suffering he could not understand the idea, and wished to put himself to death; but the Arhana Pindola, who dwelt in the eastern Videhadvîpa, having seen him, came to him and instructed him in the contemplation of the void of the Hînayâna; but Vasubandhu, not being satisfied with that, sent a messenger into the heaven named Tushita to make special inquiries of Maitreya, and after having received from him an explanation of the void of the Mahâyâna, he returned to Jambudvîpa, where, having given himself up to study, he received the gift of foresight, and because of that he was surnamed Asañga (U-thyo, 'unimpeded'). He still went sometimes into Tushita to Maitreya to make particular inquiries about the meaning of the Sûtras of the Mahâyâna; but when he explained to others what he had learned they did not believe him, and he was obliged to ask Maitreya to return to the earth, to which he consented. For four months Maitreya was found in the temple of preaching, addressing the people upon the Sûtra of Seventeen Worlds, and explaining the meaning of it clearly; nobody but Asañga could see him,—the others could only hear the preaching,—and every one believed in the Mahâyâna. Maitreya taught Asañga the Samâdhi of the solar ray; then everything became intelligible to him, and he composed in Jambudvîpa the Upadeśa upon the Sûtras of the Mahâyâna.

   The second son Vasubandhu advanced also in the spiritual calling at the Sarvâstivâda school: in the extent of his learning, the number of the subjects which he understood, and his knowledge of books, he was unequalled. As his brothers had received other names, the name of Vasubandhu remained to him alone.

   Towards the five-hundredth year after the nirvâṇa of Buddha, the Arhana Katyâyaṇaputra, who had advanced in the spiritual calling at the Sarvâstivâda school, lived. He was purely Indian, but in course of time he came into the kingdom of Kipine (Kofene, Cabul), which is on the north-west of India, where at the same time there were 500 Arhanas and 500 Bodhisatvas (?). He began to compose the Abhidharma of the Sarvâstivâda school, which consists of 8 grantas. A declaration was published everywhere that those who knew anything of the Abhidharma of Buddha should tell what they knew of it. Then men, gods, dragons, Yakshas, and even the inhabitants of the heaven Akanishṭa communicated everything that they knew, were it only a phrase of a verse. Katyâyaṇaputra, with the Arhanas and the Bodhisatvas, chose out of all what was not contradictory to the Sûtras and to the Vinaya; they formed of it a composition which they divided into eight parts, in which there were 50,000 ślokas. Then they wished to compose the Vaibhâshya to explain the Abhidharma. At this time Aśvagosha was living in India, a native of the Po-dyi-do country in the kingdom of Śravasti; he understood eight parts of the Vyâkaraṇa, the four Vedas, the six sciences, and the three Piṭakas of eighteen schools: so Katyâyaṇaputra sent an ambassador to Śravasti to invite Aśvagosha to correct the writing of the proposed Vaibhâshya. For twelve consecutive years after his arrival in Kipine Aśvagosha was occupied with the work of which Katyâyaṇaputra p. 144 and the other Arhanas and Bodhisatvas had given him charge; the whole Vaibhâshya contained a million of gâthas. After their composition, Katyâyaṇaputra engraved a command on stone that no person, knowing this doctrine, should cause it to spread out of Kipine, and also that the composition itself should not pass beyond the frontier. He also took care that the other schools and the Mahâyâna should not profane or change this pure doctrine. This command was also confirmed by the king. The kingdom of Kipine was surrounded on all sides by mountains, and there were gates only on one side; all the prelates had set their guard of Yakshas as sentinels to allow all those who wished to be instructed to pass in, but not to allow them to go out again. In the kingdom of Ayodhya lived the master Vasasubhadra,* who was gifted with intelligence and a good memory; as he wished to learn the Vaibhâshya, he feigned madness and repaired to Kipine, where he listened for twelve consecutive years. Sometimes while they were explaining to him he began to inquire about the Râmâyaṇa; and on that account he was disdained by all, and was allowed to go out of Kipine, although the Yakshas had prevented the priests. After his return to his birthplace he declared that every one should hasten to learn of him the Vaibhâshya of Kipine, and, as he was old, his disciples wrote as quickly as he spoke, and in short everything was conducted towards a good end.

   About the ninth century after the death of Buddha the Tîrthika Vindhyâkavasa lived; he demanded the work Sene-ge-lune from the dragon who dwelt near the lake at the foot of the Vindhya mountains, and after having adapted it to his point of view, he came to Ayodhya and asked king Vikramâditya to allow him to enter into discussion with the Buddhist priests. At this time the great masters, such as Maṇiraṭa, Vasubandhu, and others, were away in other kingdoms. The only one remaining was Buddhamitra, the master of Vasubandhu, a very old and feeble man, but one who had deep knowledge; he was called to argue, but he could only repeat what the Tîrthika had said, and he was vanquished. The king recompensed the Tîrthika, who, upon returning to the Vindhya mountain, was changed into a pillar of stone, but his work Sene-ge-lune has been preserved till the present day. When, upon his return, Vasubandhu learned this circumstance, he caused a search to be made for the Tîrthika; but as he had been changed into stone, Vasubandhu composed the Tzi-shi-chyane-shi-lune, in which he refuted all the propositions of the Sene-ge-lune, and for that he received from the king a gift of three lakshas of gold, with which he set up three idols,—one for the Bhikshunîs, another for the Sarvâstivâda school, and the third for the school of the Mahâyâna; after that the true doctrine (that is to say Buddhism) was established anew. Vasubandhu first studied the meaning of the Vaibhâshya; then, having adopted this teaching, he composed every day a gâtha in which was contained the meaning of all he had been teaching during that day; after having written this gâtha on a leaf of copper, he caused it to be carried about on the head of an intoxicated elephant, and called by the beating of a drum those who wished to dispute the meaning of the gâtha; but no one was found able to refute it. In this way more than 600 gâthas were composed, which contain all the meaning of the Vaibhâshya; it is the Kośakarina, or the Kośa in verse. When Vasubandhu had added to it fifty pounds in gold, he sent it to Kipine to all those who were masters of the Abhidharma, who were greatly rejoiced that their true doctrine was spread abroad; but as they found in the verses some incomprehensible passages, they themselves added other fifty pounds in gold, and desired Vasubandhu to write an explanation in prose; he then composed the Abhidarmakośa {sic}, in which he has introduced the Sarvâstivâdine ideas, and refuted whatever deviated from the principles of the Sûtras. When this composition arrived at Kipine, the masters in these districts were irritated at seeing their opinions overturned.

   The son of king Vikramâditya, who bore the name of Prâditya ('new sun') made his vows to Vasubandhu; and his mother, who entered the religious calling, became his pupil. When Prâditya mounted the throne, the mother and son besought Vasubandhu to stay at Âyodhya and enjoy their fortune, which he consented to do; but the brother-in-law of Prâditya, the Brâhmaṇ Vasurato, who had p. 145 married his sister, was a master of the Tîrthikas and was versed in Vyâkaraṇa, according to the principles of which he composed a refutation of the Kośa, a work of Vasubandhu, who for his defence wrote Sane-shi-erle-ping (32 Articles), in which he refuted all the objections. The Vyâkaraṇa was lost, and there remained only the other composition. The king gave him as a reward a laksha of gold, and his mother gave him two; with this Vasubandhu erected an idol in each of the three kingdoms of Kipine, Purushapura, and Ayodhya. The Tîrthika, red with shame, wishing to humble Vasubandhu, brought from India to Ayodhya the master Siñhabhadra, who composed two works to refute the Kośa: in the one (Guane-sane-ma-iê), in 10,000 gâthas, he explained the meaning of the Vaibhâshya; and in the other (Sui-shi-lune), in 12,000 gâthas, he defended himself and overturned the opinions of the Kośa. After having finished these works, Siñhabhadra provoked Vasubandhu to discussions, but the latter removed himself under pretext of his old age, referring them to wise people to judge them. At first this master, who had plunged into the study of the ideas of eighteen schools, had devoted himself to the Hînayâna, and did not believe in the Mahâyâna,—he said that the doctrine of Buddha was not in it. Asañga, apprehending that his brother would write a refutation of the Mahâyâna, called Vasubandhu to Purushapura, where he himself dwelt, and converted him to the Mahâyâna. Vasubandhu repented of his former criticisms of the Mahâyâna and wished to cut out his tongue, but his brother sought to persuade him that it would be better to write an explanation of the Mahâyâna, which he indeed composed after the death of Asañga. It is to him that the commentaries on the Avantansaka, the Nirvâṇa, the Saddharmapundarika, the Prajnâpâramitâ, the Vimalakirti, and other Sûtras belong; besides these he composed Veï-shi-lune, in which is contained the whole conception of the whole Mahâyâna, and also Gane-lu-mine and the other Śâstras of the Mahâyâna. All that was composed by this master is distinguished for excellence of style and ideas: it is for that reason that, not only in India, but also in other countries, beyond the frontiers, the partizans both of the Hînayâna and the Mahâyâna have adopted his works as authoritative. Heretics grow pale with fear when they hear his name. He died at Ayodhya, at the age of 80 years.

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p. 141

* The biographies of the first three were translated into Chinese under the dynasty of Yao-tzine, A.D. 384-417, by Kumâraśya (Kumâraśila ?); and the last, that of Vasubandhu, appeared under the Chene dynasty (A.D. 557-588), by the celebrated Chene-ti. From theee M. Vassilief derives the following abridged lives (pp. 210-222 of the Russian ed.).

A sort of bell for calling to religious exercises.

p. 142

* We do not now find all these works of Nâgârjuṇa either in Chinese or Thibetan, though there are others that go under his name.

This note is found in the Chinese biography.

The 'sagene' is a Russian measure of 6 ft. 9.2 in.

§ Yet we do not know that Nâgârjuṇa was still alive, though the usual legends make Âryadeva the personal disciple of Nâgârjuṇa.


Ine-to-lo-to-ma-na; to-ma-na signifying vanquisher.

** Bi-kia-lo.

†† Po-lo-po-no-di.

p. 143

* Kiao-chi-kia, one of the names of Indra himself.

p. 144

* Po-soso-siui-ba-to-lo.